Estonian students are the best in Europe in mathematics, reading, science, and financial literacy according to the recent PISA tests. More than 60% of pupils said they are considering a future as entrepreneurs. This steady improvement in global education rankings has inspired Estonia to launch ‘Education Nation – for the smartEST people in the world’ to scale the experience and share it worldwide.
The Estonian educational environment has been intertwined with digital and technological solutions for decades, just like the rest of the country. The Tiger Leap initiative in the early 1990s that brought IT and the internet to schools is considered part of the foundation for Estonia’s digital development. The recent worldwide experiment with remote learning during the COVID-19 lockdown has made the advantages of this digital backbone clearer than ever. As the secretary of state at the Ministry of Education and Research Mart Laidmets puts it: “We have already been preparing for this kind of crisis for 25 years.”
Trying to pinpoint the foundation of the success of Estonia’s education is not as easy as it seems and the correlation with the use of technology is not inevitable.
Superb results in the PISA tests
Let’s deviate from the topic for a moment to review the definition: PISA is the OECD’s programme that measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics, science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.
Innove foundation is one of the pillars of educational innovation and has been tasked by the government to lead the Education Nation initiative. Birgit Lao, CEO of Innove, points out several aspects that have contributed to the PISA victory: “Historically, the education system of Estonia has been very decentralised. The school headmasters and teachers have far-reaching responsibility for the methodology. Secondly, the curriculum is very flexible. It just leads towards expected study outcomes in a subject and general skills without prescribing how to achieve them in detail – this is the task and opportunity of the school and each teacher.”
According to Lao, the spectacular PISA outcomes can also be attributed to experienced teachers: “The average age of Estonian teachers is high, but they are tech-savvy at the same time. Teachers are well educated themselves. More than 70% of teachers hold a Master’s degree or equivalent – a higher proportion than the OECD average. They have a strong methodological and didactic theoretical background.”
Estonia has managed to achieve high PISA results across the whole social spectrum – good results in school do not depend on the socio-economic background of the students. In fact, years ago, the PISA method helped to recognise the weaknesses of the education system and address them specifically – the low performance of weaker learners had a considerable effect on the overall results. Thus, Innove has led a consistent effort to create a better learning environment for weaker and special needs pupils; improving their learning experience has boosted the overall results as well. Estonia has developed a unique nationwide network of education counselling services. 15 Innove Pathfinder centres offer free counselling to adults involved in children’s education – parents, teachers, and support specialists. Due to the geographical distance, e-speech therapist and e-education counselling services have been made available online as well.
Since it is necessary to test and measure results to assess different teaching methods and approaches, Innove has developed e-tasks and diagnostic tests for schools to assess progress in different subjects. There are also digital testing options to measure the general skills of students. Digital grading enables teachers and learners to get fast feedback during the learning process and quickly adapt to personal needs, thus saving time for learners and teachers alike. Innove aims to provide digital grading solutions in all subjects by 2023.
It takes a village
Education is a topic that touches most people in society and Estonians are eager to be part of the discussion, as well as chip in if needed. The motivation of pupils and families plays a big role – Estonians have always believed that education is the fastest road to success. The spring of 2020 will be remembered in many families as a time when learning and work moved into the home. A challenge and an opportunity at the same time. There is finally an understanding that all of the digital education solutions developed over the last decades are not simply ‘nice-to-have’ additions to classroom teaching but rather a true lifeline.
Professor Marju Lauristin, a lead expert in Estonia’s education strategy 2035, was pleased to see that an educational environment with individual learning paths is no longer a utopian dream: “The unexpected closure of schools accelerated the cracks in the shell of the education system and the learner-centred process materialised overnight from vision papers into the lives of hundreds of thousands of families and created a new cooperation network between students, teachers, education designers, and parents. The dream of a self-leading learner and teachers/parents who guide them smartly has received a realistic framework due to these experiences.”
How to make Estonia’s experience an international success story?
Estonia aims to bring quality education to all learners regardless of his/her access to education or possible special needs. This is already possible in Estonia but the worldwide situation is far from ideal. So, Estonia wants to initiate educational innovation globally. However, Estonia is too small to develop educational services for even its own 150 000 pupils and 70 000 students. The startup model, using Estonia’s schools in pilots and as a testing bed with the ambition of scaling globally, is the way to go.
Birgit Lao has shared the Estonian public education model with many governments worldwide during her consultations on building up education systems, to create sustainable teacher training or improve the inclusion of special needs students in education in Eastern Europe and beyond: “Also during the COVID-19 pandemic, some Arab countries like Kuwait have shown interest, even South America. Japan and Spain seem to be very interested. We participated at the EdTechX Online Summit in May; in June we will hold a workshop for teachers in Belarus and next year we will be promoting education innovation at EXPO 2021.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Education Nation has been hosting the weekly, free, remote learning webinars ‘Education Nation: tips for remote learning’ to offer support for all of those affected by the current switch to online education.
Public-private partnership in education
Estonia has created a well-functioning public-private partnership model in educational innovation, involving new approaches provided by private sector initiatives. Over the past 12 years, a stable startup community has developed in Estonia wherein services are provided by nearly 100 support organisations to bring out new solutions with potential for global growth. The Garage48 series of hackathons, the STARTER startup program for students, and the Prototron competition of Tallinn Science Park Tehnopol have been focused on education innovation strongly. In the last two years, almost 50 new prototypes in the field of education have been proposed, a dozen of which will reach learners soon.
Startup Estonia as a public initiative together with the Ministry of Education and Research has set EdTech as one of its focus activities with the aim of supporting existing EdTech startups and bringing 20 new companies to the market within 2 years. By 2020 there were 40 EdTech startups in Estonia with Lingvist, DreamApply, and Opiq as market leaders.
Global lockdown and worldwide remote learning have been a big opportunity for the growth of EdTech startups. “Within the first month, all leading Estonian EdTech companies acquired tens of thousands of new users – some saw growth of over 400%. ALPA Kids and Clanbeat Education have increased their user numbers the most”, says Inga Kõue, EdTech Sector Project Lead at Startup Estonia. Both companies have grown with strong help from teachers and students through a co-creation programme. Startup Estonia, HITSA and Tallinn University are piloting a co-creation programme of 6 EdTech companies and 14 schools in 2020 to develop new solutions and improve the quality of education. Even during school lockdown, co-creation has continued and given a wider view of innovation to teachers who are involved in projects.
Kõue points out that the continued cooperation between the public and private sectors is the basis of Estonian educational success stories: “Quarterly roundtables of private entrepreneurs with the Minister of Education, integration of private and public sector e-services and integration of learning analytics are the keywords that ensure a strong and unified education system. The joint effort to ensure the availability of high-quality education also during distance learning has highlighted Estonia as an Education Nation.”
More broadly, the cooperation between private and public sector has been one of the main factors that have made Estonia a no-bureaucracy digital country where 99% of public services are available online.